It proves how gaming can craft full-fledged parallel universes into which players can gladly immerse themselves
Aware that two alien factions that carry impossibly advanced and powerful war technology will fight a large-scope battle in the vicinity of planet Earth, the human race braces itself for the worst: total extinction of the species through the annihilation of its home planet. To avoid that fate, governments from all over the world prepare a fleet of gigantic ships that will be launched from major cities carrying selected groups of humans; their mission: float around space while looking for a new land to colonize. Sadly, many of the ships are taken down as they leave the Earth’s atmosphere; one of them, though, escapes the blockade and sails through the great darkness until it is tracked down by a group of aliens and shot down mercilessly. It crashes on planet Mira, with many of its pieces being scattered all over the land’s surface.
That ship is the White Whale, launched from Los Angeles, and its main module – a city-like structure meant to serve as the headquarters for the eventual colonization – comes to rest in the middle of an open field. From that location, appropriately called New Los Angeles, the survivors must, with the aid of their skills and technology, find a way to survive and recover the missing portions of the ship, which contain valuable information and, most importantly, citizens in complete stasis, waiting to be woken up to begin their new life.
That setup makes the intentions of Xenoblade Chronicles X clear: to be an open world title in which gamers are given a lot of freedom when deciding what to do next. Players take control of a four-piece team of humans that are a part of BLADE (Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth), a military organization that is responsible for all matters related to human survival on Mira.
As it turns out, surviving on an extraterrestrial planet incurs a lot of work: surveying the land while looking for materials; defeating dangerous monsters that inhabit the planet and pose a threat to New Los Angeles; protecting members of BLADE that go out into the wilderness; resolving problems between the citizens; testing new weapons that have been developed by the city’s research groups; venturing onto new territory and installing probes that will help in the gathering of information and resources on the planet’s many regions; collecting minerals; and recovering parts of the ship.
The game utilizes its early core missions to paint that general picture and give players a firm grip on its most important concepts. However, fortunately, within less than a couple of hours, gamers will receive a strong pat on the back and have their wheels removed, for Xenoblade Chronicles X will quickly will them to take control of their team’s fate and choose their own path towards survival and colonization.
Xenoblade Chronicles, the title’s predecessor, had already pulled off that trick, albeit using a different goal as bait. It was a JRPG at heart – with its complex menus, character stats and customization, story development, and battles – but it sprinkled that recipe with MMO tendencies, such as the huge open world, the ability to travel anywhere at anytime without restrictions, and its mission structure. In a way, Xenoblade Chronicles X uses the same trick, for it shakes up the stiff JRPG formula by borrowing elements found in the massively multiplayer online. Here, though, the recipe feels inverted: the Wii U game is an MMO with JRPG parts thrown into its structure.
There are a lot of similarities between both titles. Unfortunately, while the graphics, animation, and character models remain top-notch, the soundtrack is not one of them, for the tunes found in Xenoblade Chronicles X are clearly weaker (sometimes bordering on cheesy) than the spectacular music found in its predecessor.
The first noticeable similarity, gameplay-wise, is the battle system, which is the same; a smart choice given its quality and action-packed spirit, a relief to those who are not into the quirks of turn-based gameplay. When engaging an enemy, players will control one of the members of the party while the others will be handled by the CPU. Regular attacks are delivered automatically in specific intervals, and gamers have to worry about a couple of actions: moving their character around; and activating their special attacks (or arts, as they are called here), which have a cool-down time as to avoid the constant use of the same art in a short interval.
Moving is key for three reasons. Firstly, some enemy attacks can be avoided if players are either far away from the monster or in a certain position relative to the creature. Secondly, it allows them to target specific portions of the foe’s body, which might be more vulnerable or breakable, hence allowing the delivery of high-damage blows. Finally, a few special attacks are far more harmful or have specific effects depending on the position from which they are landed.
Another aspect that is borrowed from the original Xenoblade is the high degree of character customization. Their stats are affected both by the class to which they belong and the BLADE division they choose to be a part of, both of which can be changed at any time. The class, in turn, affects the available skills (which can either give characters stat boosts or special abilities) that can be set; the array of arts from which players can choose to assemble their eight-art battle menu; and the types of weapons that can be used (one close-combat tool and a long-ranged gun, between which players can switch on the fly even during combats).
To top off the web of complexity, there are also customizable soul voices; i.e., the instructions shouted by characters during battles. That new mechanic causes those pieces of advice to have an influence on how powerful the moves are. Arts that are suggested by other party members will glow for a short while, meaning that – if activated during that period – their efficiency will be augmented. Although some soul voices are fixed, a few of them can be customized so that the set of instructions a character can yell are made compatible with the moves the party possesses and support a specific combat strategy.
Despite that inherited depth and similar battle mechanics, which form the main link that holds the two games together, the stronger MMO tendencies held by Xenoblade Chronicles X in relation to its predecessor are felt everywhere else. It all, however, begins and goes through Mira. The five regions that form the planet – Primordia and its green fields punctuated by absurd and beautiful geological oddities, Noctilum and its dense forest of overgrown plants, Oblivia and its arid landscape filled with archaeological sites, Sylvalum and its extraterrestrial wonders, and Cauldros and its fiery furnace – are huge and fully connected with no loading times in between them.
The size and intricacy of the world will not be news to those who have experienced Xenoblade Chronicles; they will, nevertheless, be impressive, for Xenoblade Chronicles X features what is possibly the biggest landmass to ever appear in a videogame. Traversing each of the continents with any amount of care, even given the pleasantly high speed in which the characters can run, is – at least – a one hour affair. Size by itself, though, is not that awe-inspiring; Xenoblade Chronicles X triumphs in the design of its overworld, much like its predecessor had done, thanks to how detailed and inviting it is.
Each continent hides a number of sub-locations that have their own landmarks: fields with distinct beautiful vegetation; mountains with oddly shaped peaks; waterfalls of impossible size; lakes of incredible beauty; overlooks with views that dazzle the eye; rocks of uncanny proportions and disposition; hidden caves and beaches; enormous trees; gargantuan metal rings of unknown origin; impressive valleys; and much more. Sites like those are literally everywhere: the continents are a fully developed expanse of distinct environments, carefully planned paths and secrets, calculated bridges, and sheer immersion augmented by a draw distance that often allows players to see from one continent to the other. The attention to detail within such scale, which is mesmerizing both horizontally and vertically, is stunning and, without a drop of doubt, the game’s finest feature.
Spread through that eye-popping vastness are both BLADE outposts that allow for some rest and interaction with other characters that might carry intriguing pieces of information, clues, or missions regarding the region in question; and creatures of different design (often bordering on a blend between earthling and alien) and size (some of which are absolutely gigantic and beautiful).
Some of those beings are utterly docile and only attack when threatened, therefore behaving like a lovely moving fauna that complements Mira’s gorgeous flora; many, however, will attack when characters are either in sight (designated by an eye icon besides the enemy’s name) or if the party gets too close to them (designated by a lightning bolt). Adding to Mira’s state as a completely unknown and wild planet, the distribution of creatures according to their level is rather uneven, meaning that roaming around New Los Angeles are many hostile creatures whose levels tread beyond 20.
Even though conflict can generally be avoided by sneaking around, such reality will undoubtedly frustrate many gamers, for it is common to be chased and killed (sometimes via a sole hit) by enemies standing in a generally calm location or separating players from the goal of a relatively low-level mission. Thankfully, though, not only does Xenoblade Chronicles X re-spawn characters close to the place of their demise, it also offers dozens of warp points around Mira, unlocked as players explore the place and plant new probes, which make traveling to any location on the map a matter of tapping on the Gamepad’s display and walking a short distance.
Teletransportation is not the only item that makes moving through Mira easier. Halfway through the game, players acquire their own skell, a giant robot that can be fully equipped with up to eight purchasable weapons, and whose model can be changed for better ones for a very steep price. Besides allowing the team to blast through the scenario quickly and even fly to great heights, it also serves as a powerful tool in combat, making enemies easy to dispose of (unless their level is a bit higher than that of the player). Although seemingly overpowered, it comes at a cost: it needs to be refueled from time to time, and losing it in battle entails the paying of a high fee to have it recovered. It is, by all means, one of the game’s most intriguing and exciting features, and one that is perfectly balanced.
The irresistible allure of the overworld plays right into the hands of two of the game’s core characteristics: its setting, which is the general quest for survival that entails the execution of various activities; and its mission-based structure. That spectacular synergy makes exploring Mira utterly satisfying, because any action that is performed – whether it is collecting a new material, killing a foe, rescuing a fellow human in trouble, locating and surveying a piece of the White Whale or planting a probe in a previously undiscovered location – feel relevant. Moreover, given players are free to choose which missions to tackle (that is it, if they want to tackle any of them instead of walking around aimlessly exploring and taking in the sights), a fantastic cycle of freedom and rewards is born.
That freedom becomes even more evident when the main story is analyzed. The fourteen missions that make it up add drama to the quest for survival by pitting BLADE and the other human inhabitants of Mira against a group of alien races that arrive on the planet with the goal of destroying the last remnants of humanity. Most of them, instead of being thrown directly at players, can be activated inside the BLADE barracks once certain criteria is met. Therefore, like any other side mission, they feel like an extra dish; one that only needs to be handled when players feel like it.
The problem is that such side-mission feel is not restricted to the way they are presented; it also exists in their meat. Not only are they generally short, but they are usually comprised of a series of sequential goals that have players going to a place on the map and killing a specific enemy, complemented by a sequence of cutscenes that develop the plot. Their structure, therefore, feels barren and undercooked; they come off as quickly put together affairs, which are compelling but ultimately repetitive and uninspired.
The game’s main missions are a source of a handful of other frustrations. All of them have prerequisites that need to be met before being started, some of which are the clearing of specific quests. The problem is the game never makes it clear where those missions can be picked up, as they are always one among dozens of equally designed mission icons that appear as players explore New Los Angeles. Gamers are, then, left with the choice of either interacting with all visible mission icons across the town until they find the right one or resorting to a guide to discover their precise location.
Additionally, the main missions invariably come attached with character restrictions, determining which of the available party members can be selected before starting them. It is a perfectly reasonable mechanic, but given the game pretty much always forces players to use their customized avatar plus Elma and Lin, there is not room for variety when progressing through the core plot.
Aside from those three main characters, which can constantly be found inside your personal and customizable barracks, there are a handful of other members that are added as the storyline goes along. However, instead of standing inside that very same location, these other BLADE recruits are scattered all over the city. Sadly, whenever players want to reconfigure their party, it is necessary that the character be found in his actual in-game location so that they can be added to the squad, making the whole process of changing party members to those who are not the three main characters a huge and useless hassle that could have been avoided via a simple menu interface.
The final problem regarding the main missions, and the game itself, lies in the fact that the level required to start those quests and beat their bosses often goes up considerably between sequential chapters. As the main missions are relatively thin, they do not contain enough battles – therefore, experience points – to sustain the level growth that the game expects.
That issue, truthfully, possesses in-game solutions: its sidequests and extra tasks. Clearing the former group (which includes bounty quests, gathering goals, and even a horde of affinity missions that come with full-fledged cutscenes, plot development, and meaningful character interactions), and performing the latter (such as planting probes, surveying resources, scanning ship parts, and discovering locations) will earn players XP.
It is only natural that a game this big and deep would find a way to force players to sink their teeth into its endless, excellent, and engaging extra content, which is a fine way to avoid grinding mindlessly by battling hordes of enemies for hours. However, the amount of experience points gained through those (especially the extra tasks) is not meaningful enough to make them viable options for leveling up at a good pace.
Therefore, the irregular curve that describes the level required for advancing through the game’s main chapter will inevitably entail grinding, whether by clearing missions like there is no tomorrow, or by beating enemies for a long time. Optimistically speaking, at least having the option to choose how the grinding will occur – and the opportunity to mix things up – is better than being forced to battle for endless hours against weak foes.
Xenoblade Chronicles X has its share of flaws, and many of them – such as the thin main quest and the poor job it often does at explaining its various and incredibly deep mechanics – keep it from being as satisfying and complete as its predecessor. There is no question, however, it stands as one of those most ambitious games of all time, one that tries to blur the lines between MMOs and JRPGs by delivering a spectacular single-player experience that matches an RPG with open-world gameplay, coupled with active and numerous online features, like being able to recruit other players’ avatars temporarily, and take on missions alongside other gamers.
Never has a game been this big, intricate, and ambitious; and rarely has a title offered as much content. Xenoblade Chronicles X is an amazing package that pulls players into a marvelous world within which they can exist and survive for more than one hundred hours. It has details and developments scattered all around its world and its missions, and the bits of satisfaction that it drops as gamers sink deeper and deeper into Mira make the effort and dedication it demands more than worthy. It is an unrelenting source of joy and wonder; a title that serves as a prime example of how gaming is capable of crafting full-fledged parallel universes into which we can gladly walk and explore for hours, plunging into a reality whose amazingly detailed and appealing mysteries are an endless pit of motivation.